Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Master Prints of Edward S. Curtis: Portraits of Native America

Edward Sheriff Curtis was just 33 years old in 1901 when he began his legendary effort to document the North American Indian through photographs and interviews. By 1930 he had studied more than 80 tribes and made more than 40,000 photographs. These seminal images came to define America’s popular vision of Native American culture.

From October 26 through January 5, 2003, the Amon Carter Museum hosted “The Master Prints of Edward S. Curtis: Portraits of Native America.”

An Oasis in the Bad Lands,1905, Platinum print.

This special exhibition showcased 65 master prints selected by Curtis himself for an exhibit called “The North American Indian,” which traveled to Boston and other U.S. cities in the first decade of the 20th century. The magnificent 14-by-17-inch platinum prints, on art nouveau mounts and signed by the artist, testify to Curtis’ standing as a major American photographer. The works are drawn from the Peabody Essex Museum, considered the finest museum compilation of Curtis photographs in the world. The exhibition opened at the Peabody Essex in November 2001 and then traveled to the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York.

Council House,1899, Platinum print.

“We are very excited to be hosting this wonderful exhibition,”said Amon Carter Museum Director Rick Stewart. “The Carter possesses an extensive collection of photographs depicting Native Americans, including significant works by Curtis. He was surely one of the most important photographers to attempt a record of these diverse peoples, and this exhibition presents the very finest examples of his monumental effort.”

Curley – A Crow,1905, Platinum print.

The Master Prints of Edward S. Curtis: Portraits of Native America” featured 65 rare and exquisite platinum and gelatin-silver photographs that Curtis assembled into a 1906 exhibition to raise money to fund his ongoing project. The prints were purchased by a collector shortly thereafter and donated to what would become the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., where they have remained until now. The prints were presented just as Curtis originally created them, on deckle-edged, heavyweight wove paper. The exhibition included portraits of famous and lesser-known figures, including Red Cloud, Geronimo and Chief Joseph, and a range of compelling views of encampments and activities.

Nayenezgani – Yeibichai, Navajo,1904 Platinum print.

“They [the photographs] were Curtis’ most carefully selected prints of what was then his life’s work,” said Clark Worswick, curator of photography at the Peabody Essex Museum. “And certainly these are some of the most glorious prints ever made in the history of the photographic medium. The fact that we have this man’s entire show of 1906 is one of the minor miracles of photography and museology.”

Much debate has swirled around the authenticity of Curtis’ photography. He had tribal leaders wear anachronistic headdresses and costumes. He placed his subjects in highly idealized settings, often in dramatic pose. His re-created rituals and customs were at times inaccurate. He attempted the difficult feat of depicting a traditional Indian culture that was changing rapidly as a result of its contact with European Americans. Worswick, though, does not believe such facts diminish Curtis’ accomplishments.

Curtis told a newspaper reporter in 1911 that the Native American peoples “are not only willing but anxious to help. They have grasped the idea that this is to be a permanent memorial of their race, and it appeals to their imagination.”_

Worswick, conceding that he disagrees with some colleagues about the historical truthfulness of Curtis’ images, submits that the photographs were a “joint creation. The Indians were the willing participants in creating an image. Here were people who were living under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, yet were able to retain a profound sense of human dignity. Curtis was able to capture that dignity.”_

In the 190-page catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, Tom Haukaas, a Rosebud Lakota, concurs: “We must recognize and respect the fact that [Curtis] helped bring about a more positive view of Native Americans and that his images powerfully convey central aspects of the spirit of Native American people and their cultures. For these reasons, his work deservedly endures as a unique and important artistic and cultural achievement.” The images mythologize our past and our predecessors into the Indian equivalent of a national myth” But our peoples have adapted themselves and their cultures to fit present times just like Anglo-Americans. Anglo-Americans don’t dress and act like Puritans anymore, so why should Indians be any different? Unfortunately, there is this double standard that persists even today.”_

About Edward S. Curtis

Born in 1868 in Wisconsin, Curtis opened his first photography studio in 1891. His reputation as an artist grew after his photograph of “Princess Angeline,” daughter of Chief Seattle, was published around 1895. Soon after that he committed himself to visually documenting every Native American tribe west of the Mississippi River. From Puget Sound he traveled to Alaska, on the famed Harriman Expedition, to the homes of the Blackfoot Indians in Montana then on to Arizona and New Mexico to photograph the Hopi, Zunis, Acomas and Pueblos of the Rio Grande Valley. He also photographed the Piegan, the Sioux, the Gros Ventre, the Cheyenne in the Rock Mountains, and many other tribes.